This post will focus on food recovery projects — individuals, groups, and organizations which work to redistribute and creatively use food that would otherwise go to waste. Why is food recovery important? Because in 2010, Americans created 34 million tons of food waste— that’s more than any other type of waste, except paper. To put that in perspective, that’s like nearly 5,667,000 Asian elephants (assuming 12,000 lbs as the average weight of an Asian elephant) of waste. Still having trouble picturing it? Yeah, me too.
In 2010, only about 1 million tons of food waste were recovered in the US (if you’re counting, that’s only about 167,000 Asian elephants). According to the EPA:
Food waste includes uneaten food and food preparation scraps from residences or households, commercial establishments like restaurants, grocery stores, cafeterias and industrial sources.
Because it doesn’t seem fair to not mention this, before I get to the main portion of this post, do I want to point out that the food industry does do some things to reduce waste — for instance, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, baby carrots are created from carrots that are perceived as too misshapen to be sold to consumers. However, even these carrots are selected for their ability to be easily processed, and a tremendous amount of waste is produced as the carrots are shaved down to create those cute little babies so many of us believe we like better. Apples that aren’t Grade A (perhaps they contain bumps or pits that look unsightly, or are otherwise misshapen) can be turned into applesauce or pressed for cider — but again, the fruits are selected for ease of processing and fruits that would be too small or are too deformed or damaged are discarded. Bruised tomatoes can become salsa and tomato sauce — a tomato producer I once had the opportunity to visit in Iowa did the very thing — his non-prime tomatoes became a popular, fresh, local salsa. The prime tomatoes went to grocery stores. And well, most of us have heard stories about the production of ground beef, chicken nuggets, and the like — especially in light of the pink slime news earlier this year. I wouldn’t go so far to call the creative reuse of meat scraps in the meat industry good (for a variety of reasons), but it is a way to minimize waste production in terms of discarded food.
So, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s focus on food recovery projects. As always, I’m by no means trying to cover all food recovery projects. I’m taking an opportunity to highlight some projects and ideas I think are pretty cool, which will hopefully encourage more people to participate — either by joining a local version of one of these groups, or working toward this end on their own.
There’s no way I could talk about food recovery projects, without talking about competitors in the 2012 Microsoft Imagine project for the United States — FlashFood ASU. The students on the project created an app that connects restaurants, hotels, and other business that might have surplus food at the end of the day with people in need in the community. Volunteers then help distribute the food to community members in need. On their WordPress site, the students have links to other fun food recovery projects in the United States and internationally. You can read more details about FlashFood ASU on their blog site, or in this article which summarizes not only what they do, but how they do it. This is one of several apps that helps connect people to opportunities to glean food.
A number of soup kitchens and food pantries also work toward food recovery through gleaning efforts by volunteers. A soup kitchen I volunteered in for a year worked with area grocery stores, the local university, and farms to glean unwanted produce, bread, and short-dated meat, grocery, and dairy products. During the summers, I remember our refrigerators were always packed with a lot of produce — almost always of produce we couldn’t figure out how to use as easily — fifty pounds of kohlrabi comes to mind from my second summer at the soup kitchen. And this is one of the problems with gleaning — you very well might wind up with too much produce (or another product) you can’t use. We set out extra bread and pre-packaged meals from the university on a table for guests to take with them. We created veggie-abundant main courses, and called up a local goat farmer to remove produce even we couldn’t use (because the goats didn’t care, apparently). We kept an eye on our milk and made sure we used it before it spoiled. When we didn’t have milk or eggs or fresh veggies (especially during winter, for all of these), we made do. Even using as much as possible, we threw a lot of food away— food guests scraped instead of eating, scraps from the preparation process that could’ve been composted if we’d been set up to deal with that, food that came to us already moldy or slimy (this happened more often than any of us liked to talk about), bread & sweets brought to us from University events that went stale and became brick-like. And those are just a few examples.
One of the interesting aspects of food recovery programs, is that they can help build community — not only through networks of restaurants, farms, grocery stores, etc. connected to volunteers that deliver food for people in need, but within each of these groups. You can find guidelines for how to create a food recovery program from a number of different sources, including the USDA (which, to me, focuses an uncomfortable amount of attention to naming prominent corporations), the EPA (Feed People Not Landfills), masters theses (like this one), and others. But if you don’t have a strong food recovery project in your area — or you know it’s not accessible to the people who need it, find out your state’s laws on gleaning from farmers markets, on safe food handling & storage, and if there’s a cadre of volunteers who would be willing to help you redistribute food. You can also meet with your local governing officials, if you’re so inclined (I wouldn’t be, but hey, that’s just me) on helping fill this gap with food waste (particularly useful if you can get approximate figures on tonnage of food waste from various restaurants and grocery stores) and community need.
If those things make you uncomfortable, start talking to your neighbors about setting out extra produce from their garden (because frequently everything of a particular type of plant seems to come ripe at once) for neighbors to take as they walk by. You can also talk with neighbors about allowing people to pick overhang and create a map of willing participants in your area — several cities are already doing this and also hold walking tours of food that you can forage from public and private spaces. Urban Edibles is a database dedicated to “wild” foods you can forage in cities around the world. If you want to go specific, look for foraging groups or websites based in your location. Berkeley, for instance, has Edible Cities and as of this spring, Denver has this awesome mapof the city and the types of food that can be foraged. Those are just a few examples — you can find similar maps and local foraging meet-ups all over the United States (and, really all over the world).
College students can campaign to get their school to join the Food Recovery Network, if it isn’t already a participant. This group started in November 2011, so it’s still pretty new and they’re hoping to open new chapters around the country. This projects allows students to connect to homeless populations, and others in need, in their communities. If you’re a college student, you might also check into what your university does with food that it might otherwise throw out — does it compost scraps? Do they already donate to a local food pantry or soup kitchen? Who facilitates the collection process?
Again, I can’t possibly cover all the avenues of food recovery projects going on around the country. There are great things happening. I do want to take a moment though, before I close this post to talk (very briefly) about charity versus social justice. I advocate for food recovery because people are starving or have insecure access to food, and to reduce waste because I care about the environmental impacts of food waste. But I also want to point out that there need to be steps taken to help people who are suffering chronic homelessness or other forms of food insecurity. In my mind, this looks like an abrupt restructuring of our social support and food distribution systems. It looks like a system where we don’t subsidize certain crops and then place them in all our food thus making it “cheap.” It looks like creating more opportunities for community potlucks and dinners, for grocery stores ending their fear of litigation so they stop locking their dumpsters, like harvested fields being opened up for gleaning efforts and that being publicly broadcast. It looks like a shift in how we treat each other. It looks like a shift in our collective thinking so that we stop blaming the homeless and the food insecure for the positions they’re in, and so that we realize how close any of us could be to the edge if only a few things change. It looks like community gardens and guerrilla gardening and land reclamation for garden space.
There are projects and initatives that are working to address a complete restructuring– to greater or lesser extent — around the country. I’m less familiar with these though, and would love your insight about where I might find models that people are tying to implement.
In the meantime, if you’re unsure why discussing food waste is a social justice issue, I think this lovely essay by my friend Marissa Landrigan about confronting homelessness & providing food will help you reach some conclusions (even if you decide, ultimately, you don’t agree with me). In the next installment of this series on food waste, I’ll talk about in the industrial food system, with a particular focus on food distribution centers and CAFOs.